Were we unaware of how much it can take out of you to communicate meaningfully with bunches of colleagues in real life, or were our adrenal glands so used to running on caffeinated battery-stretch we’d evolved to soldier on?
And, who forgot to warn us that spontaneous small-talk skills would be yet another casualty of the blasted pandemic (why so first-day-of-school self-conscious)?
Why should we go back to the office at all, many are asking, when we’ve shown how reliable and productive we are in comfortable pants – even if at times we’ve wanted to smash the PC in fits of “log out and try logging in again!” pique.
We all acknowledge the oft-quoted downsides of being home 24/7: the lack of corridor conversations that can throw up ideas-gold, the “we are one” work-bonding, the fact you can never escape the housework mountain in front of your face, yet no-one can hear you scream (those within range practise selective deafness).
And don’t forget the isolation, which many people discussed as “remote” working’s greatest drawback, especially for those who live alone and, introverted or not, find office contact enriching.
We return to our work tribes changed to an extent that perhaps we do not even realise.
No one is suggesting it can’t be, yet many are averse to being pushed, pulled or dragged back and this means what comes next is guaranteed to bring some wobbles. A recent survey by Swinburne University researchers for the Fair Work Commission found only 5 per cent of workers who were sent home during the pandemic want to return full-time, and last week The Age reported a “tussle” brewing between employers and staff over work arrangements for 2021.
According to the The Adapting to the New Normal: Hybrid Working 2021 survey of 600 workers and 300 employers, released by Pitcher Partners Melbourne, Bastion Reputation Management and Bastion Insights, managers are signalling they believe workers are “slacking off” while staff say they’ve been more productive at home.
Clare Gleghorn, chief executive of Bastion Reputation Management, said both employers and staff felt working from home had been a success, but warned if managers became increasingly distrustful and isolation became more entrenched there was trouble ahead.
Given the “hybrid” model of some work in the office and some at home is likely to be most widely adopted, and the desire of many workers not (yet) to return, the next few months will involve plenty of compassion.
We return to our work tribes changed to an extent that perhaps we do not even realise. Many of us are more cautious, more wary of others and, particularly for those of us who went into long second lockdown, we are carrying the remnants of that puzzling cognitive fog that cruelled our moods and at times crippled our thinking.
Sure we could work through it, but living through it was hard. Summer and incremental freedom largely seared away the malaise, but the emotional echo rings on. I would be comfortable guessing that many of us are still experiencing bouts of feeling tangibly more vulnerable, a state exacerbated rather than relieved by the rough and tumble of pre-COVID office existence.
Employers would do well to understand that a reluctance to return is less likely motivated by a desire to get away with something (how can you, anyway, if your productivity is easily measured) and more likely fuelled by the memories and marks left over from being confined, uncertain and a little bit afraid.
It will take more than a few trips to the beach to clear the unsettling residue of 2020, so why not allow people to stay home until they feel less tender.
It’s no wonder the couch/computer/pet and coffee set-up is still so appealing to many, we know going back to hubbub will be a different type of tiring. For best results all round please handle us with care.
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer. Twitter: @wtuohy
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer.